Butts in seats: Measuring success in ministry is more than a numbers game

Defining success seems about as hard as attaining success. The question, of course, is all about this: what is the win? Often in ministry, our metrics for success have more to do with institutional wins rather than the winning of people. Dallas Willard calls this measuring the ABCs–the measuring of attendance, buildings, and cash. The butts in the seats, our facilities and capacity to hold those butts and the ability to fund more and more butts in seats make it on our spreadsheets in ministry leadership meetings.

What I see wrong with this view is that the idea of growing and shepherding a congregation then becomes a numbers game rather than a people game. Is not the win “people” or our success with people? If you grow more people, what kind of people are you growing? Are you growing disciples committed to a mission or butts in seats that pay for programs to get more butts in seats?

In my ministry experience, I have had the privilege and scars of serving two church plants. Both of these did not end up being successful in the metrics of butts in seats. I have also been joyfully and painfully part of a couple large ministries where many came through the door and occupied space while increasing the ledger sheet week after week. In comparing and contrasting these two types of experiences I think a few observations might be worthy of sharing in regards to church metrics.

  • We count people because people count. Amen. If this is the reason for counting, then be the best at counting you can be. However, often it seems that people are counted because they provide institutional growth more than the fact of the life transformation of these people. Do we want to grow a church to maintain the image of success, or do we grow because we are good at reaching people whose lives grow closer to Jesus’ life?
  • The relative amount of money given is a sign of spiritual maturity. I tend to think this sounds great if we are talking about why people give. Remember the widow’s mite. This idea might be more about how people feel their lives are affected by the church rather than whether they actually are experiencing life change. Should we program and institutionalize life change? Do we value people’s participation because they endorse us as leaders or because they give out of worship and obedience? What is the plumb line for vetting our motives as leaders with our church’s financial success? Is it about transformed lives or institutional security?
  • Facilities greatly impact our ability to reach people. Indeed, if you have not the space, you cannot hold the meeting. But, is meeting the way we think of it, a strategy or an expression of our beliefs? If we hold a fancy weekend meeting as a “strategy” I think we might miss our call to meet together and the purpose of why we should be meeting together. “Spur one another on for good deeds” seems to fit as one reason we find in the book of Hebrews. Do we value this as an institutional strategy to get people in our door or because we see it as part of discipling our congregation to help the people grow?
  • “Size matters not…” says Yoda, and I actually agree with him when it comes to churches. The smaller church is harder on the people in some ways because there is not as much structure to administrate and develop an individual’s potential in my opinion. You cannot let your people specialize so they may not be as effective as they might be in a larger church. Larger means that the church is resourced to better help people find their niche´in serving others. A larger church may become overburdened with running itself which could, in turn, dilute the people’s effort to make a difference. I tend to think still that one size does not fit all and God is pleased with small and large churches–even giga-churches of over 10K people. We need to get over the comparison game and appreciate the value of diversity of sizes.
  • Life change and the investment in people always pays off. So, if you keep the win about people, you are wining the right thing. It is just a better thing to see a church succeed at gathering these wins rather than scattering these wins. Failing at institutional growth is OK if you win at reaching people. This may sound like a contradiction since actually I believe that if you reach people and help lead them to life transformation then you cannot help but grow. But, this does not mean you can actually organize them into large or even a small church that is thriving. Sometimes the institution fails or its season has passed. Church plants, even when they fail, tend to reach people and feed existing churches after their doors close.

While I agree with Dallas Willard in his criticism of the ABCs, I also do not fully buy into the fact that metrics are a contradiction to spiritually forming people. It just means that the numerical measurement subordinates to the growing up of people and their transformation. So, yes, the hope is that we are about making more followers of Jesus. That is the kind of people we want to grow and there should not be much argument about that. However, it seems like it should not be so reduced to the numbers game. I have heard church consultants say “let’s not over-spiritualize this” but I think this is all about being spiritual. Yes, read Jim Collins and Andy Stanley and eat up church growth and management materials. Let’s just make sure we measure deeper than butts in seats.

For further reading…

How do you define success for your church or ministry? Does that measuring of success produce results?

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

16 comments

  1. thank you for this post…
    i have really struggled with being environments where usually the first and only question I got about a college group worship night was, “How many kids were there?” As if that’s the only defining factor.

    rhett

  2. thank you for this post…
    i have really struggled with being environments where usually the first and only question I got about a college group worship night was, “How many kids were there?” As if that’s the only defining factor.

    rhett

  3. thank you for this post…
    i have really struggled with being environments where usually the first and only question I got about a college group worship night was, “How many kids were there?” As if that’s the only defining factor.

    rhett

  4. thank you for this post…
    i have really struggled with being environments where usually the first and only question I got about a college group worship night was, “How many kids were there?” As if that’s the only defining factor.

    rhett

  5. I’m going to push back on #2. I think I understand your idea behind this and I have no problem with that.
    But I don’t think spiritual maturity means giving more. There are plenty of immature churches who have loads of money. Sure money is one way we honor God, but we honor God by giving more as a percentage of our money. What is more to me and more to the rich guy at another church is not comparable to our spiritual maturity.

  6. I’m going to push back on #2. I think I understand your idea behind this and I have no problem with that.
    But I don’t think spiritual maturity means giving more. There are plenty of immature churches who have loads of money. Sure money is one way we honor God, but we honor God by giving more as a percentage of our money. What is more to me and more to the rich guy at another church is not comparable to our spiritual maturity.

  7. I’m going to push back on #2. I think I understand your idea behind this and I have no problem with that.
    But I don’t think spiritual maturity means giving more. There are plenty of immature churches who have loads of money. Sure money is one way we honor God, but we honor God by giving more as a percentage of our money. What is more to me and more to the rich guy at another church is not comparable to our spiritual maturity.

  8. I’m going to push back on #2. I think I understand your idea behind this and I have no problem with that.
    But I don’t think spiritual maturity means giving more. There are plenty of immature churches who have loads of money. Sure money is one way we honor God, but we honor God by giving more as a percentage of our money. What is more to me and more to the rich guy at another church is not comparable to our spiritual maturity.

  9. Tyler, so you are after the “rich” guy, eh. 😉
    Percentage, smercentage… I never said being wealthy as a church means being more spiritually mature. Like I said, “Remember the widow’s mite.”

    But, to be more clear and since I do not have professional editors, I have decided to change and edit the following: “amount” to the “relative amount” of money given.

    🙂

  10. Tyler, so you are after the “rich” guy, eh. 😉
    Percentage, smercentage… I never said being wealthy as a church means being more spiritually mature. Like I said, “Remember the widow’s mite.”

    But, to be more clear and since I do not have professional editors, I have decided to change and edit the following: “amount” to the “relative amount” of money given.

    🙂

  11. Tyler, so you are after the “rich” guy, eh. 😉
    Percentage, smercentage… I never said being wealthy as a church means being more spiritually mature. Like I said, “Remember the widow’s mite.”

    But, to be more clear and since I do not have professional editors, I have decided to change and edit the following: “amount” to the “relative amount” of money given.

    🙂

  12. Tyler, so you are after the “rich” guy, eh. 😉
    Percentage, smercentage… I never said being wealthy as a church means being more spiritually mature. Like I said, “Remember the widow’s mite.”

    But, to be more clear and since I do not have professional editors, I have decided to change and edit the following: “amount” to the “relative amount” of money given.

    🙂

  13. Love this post. It smells like a new series with the title “Church Leadership Mythbusters.”

  14. Love this post. It smells like a new series with the title “Church Leadership Mythbusters.”

  15. Love this post. It smells like a new series with the title “Church Leadership Mythbusters.”

  16. Love this post. It smells like a new series with the title “Church Leadership Mythbusters.”

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